President Obama said in an interview that he did not misjudge the potential threats of Vladimir Putin, despite the U.S. intelligence report that the Russian president personally ordered an “influence campaign” to meddle in the U.S. presidential elections.
“I don’t think I underestimated him,” Obama told ABC News’s “This Week” in an interview broadcast Sunday, “but I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyberhacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies, our open systems, to insinuate themselves into our democratic practices in ways that I think are accelerating.”
“This Week” host George Stephanopolous reminded Obama that he had dismissed Republican Mitt Romney’s contention during a debate in the 2012 campaign that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States. The report released Friday from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Russian operatives hacked into the emails of Democratic Party officials and released them publicly to harm Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, help Republican Donald Trump, who emerged victorious.
Obama said he ordered the intelligence review “to make sure that we understand this is something that Putin has been doing for quite some time in Europe, initially in the former satellite states where there are a lot of Russian speakers, but increasingly in Western democracies.”
Trump, who has expressed skepticism over the findings, received a private briefing on the report from U.S. officials Friday in New York. In a statement afterward, Trump acknowledged that foreign actors from China, Russia and other countries attempt to hack into U.S. institutions, but he emphasized that the election outcomes were not altered in any way by foreign actors. The intelligence report stated that officials did not attempt to assess the effect on the outcome.
Obama reiterated his concerns that some Republicans seem “to have more confidence in Vladimir Putin than fellow Americans because those fellow Americans were Democrats. That cannot be.”
Asked if Obama included Trump in that category, the president said: “We have to remind ourselves we’re on the same team. Vladimir Putin’s not on our team. If we get to a point where people in this country feel more affinity with a leader who is an adversary and view the United States and our way of life as a threat to him, then we’re gonna have bigger problems than just cyberhacking.”
Some Republican leaders expressed their own concerns about Russia and questioned Trump’s judgment in disputing the intelligence community’s work.
In an interview on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said: “When it comes to Trump and Russia, I am really perplexed. I’m not questioning his motives. I’m questioning President-elect Trump’s judgment. I don’t care why the Russians hacked into our system. I don’t care if they were trying to help Trump or trying to help Clinton. I want to stop it. I don’t know what drives him on Russia, but I do know this. That if our policies don’t change vis a vis Russia, the worst is yet to come. And the Congress is going to have a different view on Russia than the president-elect does.”
Graham added that “if after the briefing he is still unsure that will shake me to my core about his judgment.”
Trump aides on Sunday continued to suggest that the intense Washington focus on Russia’s hacking is a politically motivated attack on the president-elect by his Democratic rivals who lost the election. Trump called it a “political witch hunt” on Friday.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who is slated to become Trump’s White House chief of staff, said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” that it is “indisputable” that the rollout of the report is “clearly politically motivated to discredit the victory of President-elect Trump.
Trump’s briefing “came after leaks [of the report] to the media,” Kellyanne Conway, a Trump senior adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We cannot have people in positions of keeping us all safe and knowing classified information — we can’t have them leaking to the media.”
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 8, 2017
On “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee and a member of Trump’s transition team, called the intelligence report “a political rollout of a narrative just a couple weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration. It bothers me.”
Nunes faulted the Obama administration: “How else do you define it? How does the news media have this information before” key lawmakers?
On Saturday, Trump issued a series of tweets reiterating his desire to establish better relations between the United States and Russia and declared that “only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”
Republicans said Sunday that all recent administrations have sought improved relations with Moscow, including Obama’s and President George W. Bush’s.
“It’s not unusual for a new president to want to get along with Russia,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on “Face the Nation.” “My suspicion is that his hopes will be dashed pretty quickly. Russia is a big adversary and they demonstrated it by trying to mess around in our elections.”